... a simple "we're looking."
Not that it's a state secret; it's just that nobody really knows. That's why Coach Bill Cowher made a late call to the man who's held that critical job the last four seasons. But Wayne Gandy considered the Steelers' offer, that averaged slightly less than $3 million a year, "an offer to pacify the media." That's what he told the New Orleans Time-Picayune, right after he said of the Steelers "don't seem to be interested."
And he's right. At least that's how the Steelers have treated Gandy since last summer. They extended all of the unrestricted-free-agents-to-be last summer, except for Gandy and safety Lee Flowers, dismissing Gandy as a 32-year-old tackle who didn't provide much of a push in the run game.
The New Orleans Saints obviously don't care. They saw what Gandy did to pass-rusher Simeon Rice late last December and on the first day of free-agent season offered Gandy a $5 million bonus on top of a $2 million base salary, with $8 million to come in the next two seasons. The total offer is $30 million for six seasons. Gandy is waiting a day or so to see if the Steelers will up their ante because "I'm still hoping to come back to Pittsburgh."
The Steelers, though, aren't expected to move significantly off the offer they've made, so they'll have to live with their LT of the future, and he is ...
* Marvel Smith – A natural left tackle coming out of Arizona State as a junior, Smith was drafted in the second round by the Steelers and has played right tackle the last three seasons. Cowher dislikes moving players who've grown comfortable in their current role, and Smith has actually proven to be a better run blocker than pass blocker, so perhaps right tackle better suits him. Besides, Smith's contract expires after the 2003 season. If Cowher is going to make such a drastic change, he'd like it to matter for more than one season, so Smith is probably the best man but the last option.
* Oliver Ross – A massive man who's better suited for the more physical RT position, Ross showed in 2001 he could compete against one of the best pass rushers in the game by limiting Michael McCrary of the Baltimore Ravens to three tackles and half a sack while replacing Gandy in a 13-10 loss. Ross made five more starts at right guard and another at right tackle that season and then received an offer from the Cleveland Browns as a restricted free agent. The Steelers matched the offer but Ross endured an awful summer as he attempted to provide a bridge at right guard to first-round pick Kendall Simmons. Ross never did straighten himself out last season and is now a prime candidate for the June 1 axe, which would save the Steelers $883,333. McCrary, by the way, had only 8 sacks in the subsequent 26 games and is expected to announce his retirement.
* Mathias Nkwenti – Grimm's personal choice in the fourth round of the 2001 draft, Nkwenti is an explosive player whose lack of instincts frustrates Grimm to no end. During the second half of the final preseason game last season, Nkwenti came off the field after botching two assignments in three plays. Grimm talked to Nkwenti so vehemently that Simmons would later comment it was the point he realized this was big business. Nkwenti played better the rest of the game but was inactive the entire season. Grimm still holds hope for Nkwenti. The coach's frustration only shows that he still cares, but to project Nkwenti as a starter today would be stretching that faith.
Realistically, none of the three can be counted upon to protect Tommy Maddox's blind side this coming season, and the candidates in free agency are dwindling with each passing day. Orlando Pace and Walter Jones were franchised. Flozell Adams and Luke Petitgout were re-signed by their teams the day before the free-agency period opened. The Miami Dolphins, also in the Gandy sweepstakes, called Richmond Webb the only viable option remaining, and Webb, 36, was injured and missed the last 12 games with the Cincinnati Bengals last season.
Do the Steelers find their next left tackle in the draft? Of course, they'll find even more questions there. Is Kwame Harris tough enough? Does Jon Stinchcomb have enough of an anchor? Will Tony Pashos last until the second round?
These are questions the Steelers are mulling over today. The answer will certainly mean a significant fall – at least initially – from the guy who stoned Rice -- the real Super Bowl MVP -- in what was perhaps the key performance for the last team to beat the Tampa Bay Bucs.
By Jim Wexell
When Gandy Leaves
... a simple "we're looking."